The Science Behind Giant Robot Gort

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Click to view One of the huge hunks of coolness that everybody is anticipating when The Day the Earth Stood Still lands in theaters this Friday is eco-conscious alien Klaatu's sidekick, the deadly bot Gort. In the original 1950s flick, Gort was a smooth, silver menace with a cylon-style eye glowing out of his wrap-around visor. In the remake he's also giant, and one of his updated powers reflects today's cutting-edge research in robotics. (Mild spoilers ahead.)

One of the ways that Gort fights when he goes into offensive mode is that his entire huge body breaks down into a swarm of self-replicating microbots that look like metal insects. These microbots are tiny, but visible to the naked eye, and they fly in a giant formation, breaking down all organic substances in their path (buildings, trucks, humans). Basically they seem like a flying gray goo, or a nanotech disaster that eats everything. But they aren't. They are actually more like swarming microbots, a technology that's being developed in several labs across the world right now.


Most microbots look something like this one, a model used in the i-Swarm project where many tiny robots move in tandem and communicate with each other. Bots like this are the size of an insect, and are intended to behave like them too. They contain a microchip and can walk or fly, communicate via radio with each other or a home base, and may contain sensors that measure everything from the visual field to movement and sound. Right now, these kinds of swarming bots could be used as surveillance devices - scatter them over a wide area of enemy territory, and they can sense the movements of tanks or troops. Or they could be used in a disaster area to climb inside hard-to-reach areas to find out if there are any survivors.


Other types of swarming microbots, such as the magnetic swarming bots being developed at Carnegie Mellon, could easily become the tiny components of a giant robot like Gort. These bots, which you can see in the video from New Scientist below, can bond together to form any shape using magnets along their edges that they can turn on and off at will. So sometimes thousands of them might bond together into a giant robot shape. Then they could turn off their magnets and break into a million tiny pieces that eat through hardened military bases the way Gort does. Or that fly through Central Park in a massive, self-replicating swarm.

Gort is also based on the theoretical idea of a bot swarm that produces what's called a "utility fog," proposed by molecular manufacturing researcher J Storrs Hall and others. Basically a utility fog is a highly-advanced version of the magnetic swarming bots. But instead of magnets, they are covered in tiny robotic arms that can link many individual bots (called foglets) together in a lattice structure. The bots are small enough that when they link together they would create what appears to be a smooth surface - just like Gort's smooth, silvery body.


When they break apart, they form a "fog," just like the flowing, oozing shape that Gort takes when he breaks down into the microbots and they fly back to New York City. Explains Hall:

Imagine a microscopic robot. It has a body about the size of a human cell and 12 arms sticking out in all directions. A bucketful of such robots might form a 'robot crystal' by linking their arms up into a lattice structure. Now take a room, with people, furniture, and other objects in it — it's still mostly empty air. Fill the air completely full of robots. The robots are called Foglets and the substance they form is Utility Fog, which may have many useful medical applications. And when a number of utility foglets hold hands with their neighbors, they form a reconfigurable array of 'smart matter.'


Right now, the utility fog is just theoretical, but the i-Swarm bots and the magntic microbots are being perfected in the lab. The ultimate goal is to create something like Gort, capable of taking many forms to get a job done. Hopefully, though, our swarm bots will never have the job of scouring humans from the Earth.


Shape-Shifting Robot Forms from Magnetic Swarms [via New Scientist]

Utility Fog [via Nanotech Now]

i-swarm [via i-swarm]